I’ve never lived in a city where status competition was as naked as it is in San Francisco (and I kind of love it)

Cool-SF-Neighborhood-Map-san-francisco-629195_792_792Only about a month left in my summer sojourn in the Bay Area. I've enjoyed it immensely. Other than in terms of weather, I don't think the Bay Area is better than other places, but I do know about ten times more people here than I do in any other place. And that makes a difference. This summer I've spent much more time in SF than I did when I lived here before (I went to college on the Peninsula and when I lived here as a post-grad, I was in Oakland). It's fun. I can certainly see why people like the city so much. It's alive in a way that Oakland is not.

And it also has all kinds of super-weird quirks that I've never seen anywhere else. For instance, the cost of housing is an obsession here. There's endless talk about who's paying how much money for what room, and who got their apartment when and what's locked in at what rate under rent control and which neighborhoods are absolutely unaffordable and which ones are just mostly unaffordable. I guess it's SF's replacement for talking about the weather.

Actually, pretty much everywhere I've lived, people like to talk about their neighborhoods. I think that's great, actually. It's nice to have a topic of conversation that is neutral and that doesn't immediately mark you as being a certain kind of person. Your neighborhood does say something about you, but it doesn't define you in the way that your job or your politics do. I guess people also talk about their food habits and diet and various culinary restrictions in the same way, but I just can't get too excited about whether or not we should be eating gluten.

But the parameters of the neighborhood discussion do vary from place to place. For instance, in Baltimore, it's all about whether a neighborhood is happening or not (with some discussion of relative criminal activity as well). In Oakland, it's all about the crime stats (and, amongst certain social circles, you gain higher status if you live in a worse neighborhood). Whereas in SF, I don't think people really talk about hipness as much. Hipness is almost a secondary situation. Here, you take what you can afford, wherever you can find it

And if you don't know anyone, and are trying to find an apartment through Craigslist (which is how most of it seems to be done, since SF is where Craigslist was founded) then god help you. A friend of mine described their search for a new roommate: 200 people responded to her advertisement for the room! It's a firehose of applicant. And you have to go in to these apartments prepared to sell yourself as an interesting future housemate, which seems incredibly frustrating and demoralizing to me.

I also love the activism of SF. As I might've mentioned here before, I don't get particularly up in arms over political issues. I mean, I have my beliefs, but I don't lose sleep over these things. But SF is full of people (very upper-middle-class people...) who do appear to be seriously distressed over the state of the world.

However, I do often feel like there's a bit of a status competition over who cares the most. Like, who is able to most fully own their privilege. Who is able to spot the problematic element of the hit TV show. Who is able to get out in front of the wave of anger and figure out where it's going and get there first.

There is an interesting element of trendiness to life in SF. People (at least some people) really seem to care about what's cool. It's interesting to me, since I think we all care, to some extent, about appearing cool. Like, I calibrate my reading choices and my level of disaffection in a way that, I think, is pretty cool.

But I also thought that it was no longer cool to appear to want to be cool. However, I don't think that's the case. SF is full of scenes. Everything can be a scene. You can walk around on any given Wednesday and see a huge crowd outside an ice-cream store. Why? Because it's, somehow, become the coolest ice cream store. You can walk down the street and see that one cafe is empty, while in another cafe people are fighting for seats. Why? Don't they all have internet and bathrooms? On the weekends, you go to Dolores Park and see a thousand people dolled up in their slouchy finest and performing their enjoyment for each other (and I am one of them!)

It's so frenetic. In SF, all enjoyment is public. A Friday night involves going out to a spot. A meeting with a friend involves going to some name-brand cafe. A weekend involves some huge street festival. And when you're here, that feels very natural.

But it's not like that in other places. In Oakland, for instance, the high level of crime and the low population density mean that you don't really care about street life. And you also don't experience places that you don't choose to experience. I don't know which places in Oakland are hot, because I don't have to fight my way past the crowds on the sidewalk.

Which is not to say that life in Oakland is better. If anything, there's something a bit charming about the sceniness of SF. What I love about it is how indefensible it is. Like, can anyone make a convincing case for why people should line up for an hour and a half so they can eat brunch at one place instead of another? There's certainly no moral or ethical basis for it. It doesn't make the world a better place at all.

It's so decadent. The only case that can be made for doing the 'cool' thing is that it's, somehow, beautiful. Coolness is fundamentally about novelty; about experiencing new combinations of things and creating new aesthetic experiences.

But the pleasure that comes from this game doesn't have much to do with aesthetics; it's primarily the pleasure of feeling better than other people.

Coolness is not only trivial; it's also such a naked display of status competition. Like, part of the reason you go to the spot is because it makes you better (in some weird way) than people who haven't yet gone to the spot.

Why is that? Is it because it means you've had some aesthetic experience that the other person is lacking. Or is it because it means you're more well-informed and socially-connected than the other person?

Taking part in SF's social life is pleasurable in the same way that swimming through the ocean is pleasurable. You feel strange forces at work all around you, and you also feel yourself pushing out against them as you attempt to exert yourself upon the environment.

I feel like I'm being very negative, but I don't feel negatively about it at all. Nor do I really feel superior to it. I'm no better and no worse than any other person--we're all filled with trivialities...we're all obscenely obsessed with status competition. And sometimes I feel like I'm worse than anyone; I feel so trapped by that status competition. Nothing is free from it. Every statement feels like an act of aggression: the implication that I know more than you and, hence, am better than you. I wish there was some way to escape from that, and drill down to a place where we can just talk to each other. But that's an illusion. If our conversations were freed from their status implications, we'd be forced to confront the emptiness of our social interaction.

Talking to people is (primarily) about two things: a) experiencing a sense of connectedness; and b) establishing our sense of our own place in the world. If we cut out b) and were only left with a) then I think conversation would, frankly, be a bit boring--we could just talk about anything, in the right tones, and we'd be fine. It's the element of performance that makes interacting with other people so much fun. So I go through the rituals with as much vigor as anyone--there's nothing I've written about in this article that I don't do all the time--but I do also try to maintain an element of lightness. Like everything else in life, status competition is just a game.

3 thoughts on “I’ve never lived in a city where status competition was as naked as it is in San Francisco (and I kind of love it)

  1. Gabriel Murray

    Hahaha, this is sort of refreshing, I’ve never heard a Bay Area person admit to enjoying the snobbishness of the Bay Area without some kind of passive-aggressive self-putdown or humblebrag. As a–roughly–SoCaler originally from Portland, it’s hard not to be in the habit of making fun of San Francisco and its liberalism-for-rich-people. But it’s also just a pretty nice area with some pretty nice cultural output and I can’t deny that Berkeley is a dream grad school of mine.

    In SF, all enjoyment is public. A Friday night involves going out to a spot. A meeting with a friend involves going to some name-brand cafe. A weekend involves some huge street festival. However, this phenomenon drives me insane and is part of why I like living in New York. I like anonymity, at least in my daily life. Hence my irritation when friends try to get me caught up in a similar social scene in Manhattan or whatnot. No, I don’t want to be seen there! I moved here to not be seen places!

    1. Gabriel Murray

      It also occurs to me that Portland’s sort of turned into San Francisco in my absence, which is weird – in my years living away from there it’s gone from a not-really-fashionable-at-all city to a stereotypically-fashionable city. Most of Southern California is still pretty uncool in those particular subcultures though. Too much low culture.

      1. R. H. Kanakia

        Yeah, the Bay Area is absurd, but what can you do. Also, I’m not really from here. Just a visitor =) If I lived in the city for a year or two, I’m sure I’d start justifying everything. Although I guess I _was_ born in Redwood City…

        I like SoCal a lot! There’s something about the size and the loneliness of it. When you drive through, you’re like: here are a lot of people living in a lot of different ways.

        I have only limited experience with Portland. It’s definitely a fashionable city, but it doesn’t feel quite as self-important, because no one there has any money.

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